The joy of song: from May Morning to choral evensong
30th April 2019
On Wednesday 1st May almost 14,000 people gathered at dawn in the streets of Oxford to hear Magdalen College Choir sing the ‘Hymnus Eucharisticus’.
The hymn has been sung from the top of the College’s Great Tower on May Morning since the music was composed by Magdalen Fellow and Informator Choristarum, Benjamin Rogers, in the late 17th century, although the tradition itself is thought to date back to the 15th century.
Despite a recent British Social Attitudes survey suggesting a dramatic decrease in the number of people who consider themselves religious, this ceremony, which draws on Christian tradition, is bucking the trend and growing in popularity: a record 27,000 people were reported to have attended in 2017.
It’s not just the May Morning ceremony that is enjoying an increase in attendance. A quiet revolution is happening in college chapels and cathedrals across the UK as more and more of us are making time for choral evensong.
The latest Church of England data shows a 37 per cent increase in the number of people who attend weekday services in cathedrals since 2017. Today, well over 18,000 a week attend.
BBC Radio 3’s weekly broadcast, Choral Evensong, is currently enjoying its largest audience in the programme’s 92-year history after a 34 per cent leap in listener numbers in 2016.
Choral evensong has changed very little since the publication of the first Book of Common Prayer almost five centuries ago, so why is it enjoying this sudden renaissance?
New research explores popularity of choral evensong
Kathryn King, a musicologist DPhil student at Magdalen College, is hoping to find out why choral evensong is becoming more popular in a new three-year research project.
“There is a lot of anecdotal evidence around the reasons for the growing popularity of choral evensong,” says Kathryn, “but very little systematic empirical research.
“I want to find out who is going to choral evensong and why. What does it mean to them? And what can their motives and experiences add to our understanding of the role of choral music in the 21st century?”
Kathryn’s research includes an in-depth focus on the personal stories of the congregants of two English cathedrals and the Chapel of Magdalen College, Oxford.
Virtual reality choral evensong
Kathryn is also hoping to shed new light on the real-time experience of listening to choral evensong by using a virtual reality audio-visual recording of a live service in Magdalen College Chapel.
Participants in the virtual evensong study are asked to talk through their thoughts and feelings as they experience evensong via cutting-edge virtual reality headsets, while their heart rate and other physiological responses are monitored – something that would be far too disruptive during an actual service.
If you would like to experience one of the very first VR choral evensongs yourself you can do so on the Magdalen College Choir facebook page https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=370168640373718
The choral evensong survey
A further part of Kathryn’s findings will come from a survey which aims to gather the experiences of those who attend choral evensong. The survey has already been completed by more than 1500 people.
If you have ever attended choral evensong, you can take the survey at https://oxford.onlinesurveys.ac.uk/experiences-of-choral-evensong-survey-2019 The survey closes on Saturday 1st June.
The results of Kathryn’s extensive mixed-method research are expected in 2020.
Choral evensong at Magdalen
Magdalen has always enjoyed good attendance at its choral services, but the College is always keen to welcome more people.
Whether you want to worship, enjoy the beautiful chapel, hear the marvellous choir, or just find a space to think, Magdalen College is open to all. The times for choral evensong in Magdalen College Chapel can be found at www.magdalencollegechoir.com
You can also hear choral evensong at Magdalen College Chapel live on BBC Radio 3’s Choral Evensong on Wednesday 8th May at 3.30pm, repeated on Sunday 12th May at 3.00pm.
Everyone is welcome.